PRINT Summer 2002


Ileana Sonnabend

IT IS GENERALLY AGREED that “From Pop to Now: Selections from the Sonnabend Collection,” which opens in June at Skidmore College’s Tang Museum, represents only the tip of an enormous submerged iceberg of art. Talking to dealers and curators, one gets occasional glimpses below waterline: Neil Printz, coeditor of the Warhol catalogue raisonné, mentions that Ileana Sonnabend, one of the most enigmatic and influential impresarios of twentieth-century art, who also happens to be Leo Castelli’s ex-wife, owns some of Warhol’s finest drawings. Charles Stainback, the Tang’s director, recalls “something like fifty Kiefers.” But it’s impossible to get an exact sense of the scope of her holdings. As another dealer of her generation remarked, Sonnabend is “a major, major figure—and we don’t even know how major because it’s all been so discreet.” The collection has apparently never been inventoried, and Sonnabend and her gallery’s director and legal heir, Antonio Homem, politely decline to offer even a rough estimate.

Given the estimable list of artists Sonnabend is well known to have championed over the years, the Skidmore show begins on a somewhat predictable note, with a roomful of classic works by Johns, Rauschenberg, and Twombly. What follows, though, is both less and more than a trek through (now) established taste. A glance at the checklist reveals obvious gaps (no Frank Stella, no Chuck Close, no Cindy Sherman). Major artists whom the gallery launched but no longer represents (Carroll Dunham, Peter Halley, Terry Winters) are also among the missing. Clearly, “From Pop to Now” isn’t intended as a history of contemporary art or even of the Sonnabend gallery. Instead it’s a personal recap, a selective memoir. And yet what’s striking is how uncannily durable Sonnabend's taste has proved—at least judging from the eighty-two works presented here, which offer a virtual anthology of Pop, Minimalism, arte povera, Conceptualism, and neo-geo. You have to feel a little awed by the shrewdness, not to mention the eclecticism, of Sonnabend's picks. Fifteen years ago, viewing a culling of the collection that toured Europe for the gallery's twenty-fifth anniversary, Robert Rosenblum felt “dumbfounded by how great it was.” This update is considerably smaller, but it's likely to prompt similar admiration.

With that admiration come some obvious questions, beginning with the choice of a relatively modest venue. Why the Tang instead of MoMA? Sonnabend is mum about her collection’s eventual fate, but when Calvin Tomkins interviewed her for a New Yorker profile a couple of years ago, she said she “wasn’t so enchanted with museums” and hinted that her legacy might end up at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. If that’s true, lending this show to the Tang might be a way of avoiding bigger, more expectant institutions. Stainback diplomatically adds that a “young unknown museum” like the Tang might suit Sonnabend’s riskiness, her embrace of the new. About the question of the collection’s continuity, however, he’s more hesitant. Formerly a curator at the International Center of Photography, he suggests that an affinity for photo-based work weaves through Sonnabend’s choices, from Warhol up through Gilbert & George and Jeff Koons. Beyond that, he admits that it’s hard to locate a connecting thread. Sonnabend herself says little to help pin down her tastes.

Her reticence is in fact legendary. James Rosenquist remembers her staying for hours after a studio visit with Allan Stone in 1960, “just sitting there quietly, smiling.” Robert Pincus-Witten, a former director of the gallery, described her as a woman whose “conversation consists mostly in listening.” Andy Warhol, in his diaries, recounted a meeting with Mary Boone in which the young dealer sat wordlessly with an “Ileana Sonnabend smile.” You might think that Sonnabend’s reserve would drop away when it came to talking about the art she owns; instead she “stridently refuses,” in Stainback’s words, to talk about the collection. About personal matters, on the other hand, she can be memorably blunt. Jeff Koons recalls that Sonnabend was the only person (aside from his father) to try and prevent his marriage to Italian porn star La Cicciolina. “You’re making a terrible mistake,” she told him. Later, when Castelli raised eyebrows with his third marriage, to a much younger woman, Sonnabend parried reporters’ questions about her ex with a laconic declaration: “I have many thoughts, but no statement.”

Thanks to her more voluble ex-husband, however, the public outline of Sonnabend’s biography is well-known. Born Ileana Schapira to a wealthy Jewish family in Romania, she met the Italian-born Castelli in 1932, when she was seventeen. “He was not like the others,” she remembered later. “He was on the move.” The newlyweds honeymooned in Vienna and settled in Paris. There, on the eve of World War II, Leo opened his first gallery.

When the Germans invaded, Ileana’s fortune allowed the couple to migrate to New York in comfort, and they were soon drawn into the circle of Abstract Expressionist painters, whose works Leo began dealing on a private basis. When Leo finally opened a gallery again in 1957, he asked his wife to make scouting trips to young artists’ studios. Sometimes, Ileana recalled, she, Allan Stone, and Ivan Karp would start “around five o’clock, when the galleries closed, and go on until two in the morning.”

The excitement of those visits, followed by her decision to divorce her congenial but philandering husband, changed her life. The next year, 1960, she married the scholarly, talkative Michael Sonnabend. The two set out for Europe with the idea not of starting a gallery but of proselytizing for the new American art. It proved a trickier project than they had expected. In Rome and then in Paris, local dealers were unreceptive. There was, it turned out, only one way to show artists like Johns, Rauschenberg, Dine, and Lichtenstein: to do it themselves.

Resistance forced the Sonnabends’ hand, but it also guaranteed that they didn't have any competition. For years after it opened in Paris in l962, the Galerie Sonnabend was virtually the only conduit for Pop and Minimalism in Europe. Meanwhile, the Sonnabends discovered a generation of Continental artists, including Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, and Pier Paolo Calzolari. The young gallery wasn’t much of a commercial success, but that wasn’t the aim. Ileana and Michael had set out in a promotional, almost philanthropic spirit. In those terms, they couldn’t have been more successful.

In 1970 they decided to open a space in Manhattan, at first on Madison Avenue, and then, not quite two years later, in SoHo, the new frontier neighborhood. In a sense, SoHo in 1971 was like Paris in 1962. Buyers were scarce. What was required was attention, excitement, talk. Beginning with its very first show, Gilbert & George’s now legendary Singing Sculpture, Sonnabend provided plenty of talk. The ’70s—lean years for the art world generally—were great years for the Sonnabends. Ileana and Michael, with their unmaterialistic temperament and generosity (nearly all the artists connected with the gallery were being paid a regular stipend), suited the spirit and the needs of the time. In truth, they were patrons as much as dealers, supporting artists whose work echoed their intuitive avant-gardism.

The early ’80s were a different matter. It’s sometimes said that Sonnabend “sat out neoexpressionism.” In fact the gallery showed a fairly enviable list—A.R. Penck, Georg Baselitz, Jörg Immendorf, Albert Oehlen, and Robert Yarber. But clearly, the era’s return to painting didn’t correspond to any latent loyalty on the Sonnabends’ part. It wasn’t until late in the decade that they found the cool, cerebral cohort of artists who had emerged from the East Village scene (Ashley Bickerton, Haim Steinbach, Peter Halley, Jeff Koons) and whose work brought the gallery a renewed currency. The art of the ’90s, at first stridently politicized and later coolly ironic, didn’t match the Sonnabends’ predispositions either—though the gallery’s quieter recent profile may reflect other factors, among them the death of Michael Sonnabend in 2001 and Ileana’s increased withdrawal from day-to-day gallery affairs. Today, in its Chelsea location, the gallery continues to pick up artists (among them Rona Pondick, Clay Ketter, and Max Becher and Andrea Robbins, all featured prominently in “From Pop to Now”) as a proof that she and Homem remain committed to new art.

Koons, like the majority of artists who’ve been represented by Sonnabend, speaks with amazement at Ileana's extreme supportiveness, her “blind faith” in her artists. “What I’ve always felt from Ileana,” Koons says, “is love.” Artists who have shown “difficult” pieces likewise remember her serenity, her utter lack of embarrassment or anxiety. “You do what you need to do,” she told Acconci about a performance that involved two weeks of sporadic public masturbation. During the run of what was probably the most flagrantly hard-core show to grace a private gallery, Koons’s “Made in Heaven,” Ileana chose to put Butt Red (Close Up), 1991, a silk screen of Koons and La Cicciolina engaged in anal sex; on display in her office.

Certainly Sonnabend has always been daring, but her essential aesthetic remains a mystery that “From Pop to Now” probably won’t do much to clarify. What explains the continuity of her forty-year hitting streak? Artists and dealers talk in puzzled, general terms about the art that Sonnabend has shown—her appetite for conceptual work, her early interest in photography and performance. Peter Schjeldahl describes the “slightly gloomy, heady, and demanding” air of the gallery's roster. Beyond that, many of the people closest to Sonnabend agree with the assertion made by Judith Goldman, a friend and Castelli biographer: “There is no connecting thread.” Ivan Karp suggests that the most we can talk about is “the continuity of the irregularity of her taste.” Mel Bochner goes farther, arguing that concepts like “taste” and “eye” don't apply to Sonnabend. Her gift, according to Bochner, is something like a “negative eye,” an absence of settled taste.

In person, Sonnabend is pretty much as advertised: quiet, gracious, faintly coquettish. Asked about her motivations, she offers a warm, slightly apologetic smile. “I just follow my nose.” In a way, she’s a submerged iceberg herself. What you see on the surface is a modest, grandmotherly figure. But occasionally a current stirs her and you get a glimpse of something else. When I ask whether she felt competitive with her ex-husband’s gallery, there’s a long pause. Homem, who generally remembers details better than Ileana herself, steps in politely and demurs. But Sonnabend shakes her head. “Competitive? Yes. Leo's gallery was a challenge to me. But the other galleries? I didn't think the other galleries were.”

“From Pop to Now” will be on view at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, June 22-Sept. 29, 2002; Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, fall 2002; and Milwaukee Art Museum, spring 2003.

Alexi Worth, a writer and artist, lives in New York.